The same author who warned his Julius Ceaser to, “beware the ides of March,” (Julius Ceaser Act I scene ii) also has Polonius instructing Laertes, “This above all: to thine own self be true,” (Hamlet, act I, scene iii). Both are instructions that photographers and other creatives would do well to heed.
Then came digital printing and online magazines. Suddenly, there were new magazines popping up everywhere looking for, begging for, content with which to fill their pages. I would pass by more upscale newsstands and not recognize two-thirds of the banners facing me. I would pass by a month later and find a whole new crop in their place. Longevity didn’t seem to be in the cards for most new titles.
Being a freelance creative means going out and finding the work; it’s never going to just show up at your front door unprovoked, though that’s what many of us dream. We network in circles with which we’re less than comfortable. We push ourselves well out of our comfort zones. We play nice with people we really don’t like all that much. We do whatever it takes to get that plum assignment.
Then, we’re asked to work for free. Or at least, if not for free, for roughly a third of what our services is actually worth. We sit at our desks or on our couches and begin to wonder: is it all worth it? Why do I keep chasing something that seems to want no part of me?
Hello, self-doubt. I’ve been down this road enough times now I know it’s coming, typically mid-March just as things are starting to thaw. We have fashion weeks out of the way, we’re scheduling editorial shoots as heavily as we dare, and all the while we’re thinking, “Is it worth all the trouble?”
Shakespeare’s Caesar is warned against the betrayal of his best friend, Brutus. Perhaps the soothsayer would similarly warn creatives against the betrayal of ourselves. Once we begin to question whether we’re good enough, once we start wondering why someone else got a job we wanted, once we start thinking that perhaps we made a wrong turn in our career, we’re slowly but surely killing ourselves. We might as well be plunging a dagger into the heart of our creativity.
Not that some self-reflection isn’t occasionally necessary, and no, freelance creative work isn’t appropriate for everyone. Yet, when we begin doubting ourselves we betray the talent within us that leads us to be creative. Coming up with new ideas, exploring new concepts, stretching the bounds of our media, requires us to have faith in ourselves, faith in our talent, and the resolve to see a project through to its end, even if that end isn’t exactly what we had hoped when we started.
“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
I was perusing through a stack of magazines recently, one of those stacks where, once again, I recognized none of the titles. In considering the imagery being used, I found myself asking, “Is this what I have to do to be commercially viable anymore?” Where does one find the balance between what seems to be popular demand while staying true to one’s own creativity?
Again, we’ve been here before so I have some idea how to snap myself out of this deadly loop of self-denial and betrayal. It goes something like this:
- Stop trying to be all things to all people. One of the biggest fallacies of being creative is that we have to be able to do it all. No, we don’t. In fact, chances are pretty f’n high that you can’t. Stop wasting time and energy trying.
- Find your niche and work it. If you don’t like doing color photography, then stop chasing that medium. Find the black and white markets that are best suited to you.
- Present your best work. Web sites and social media make it really easy for us to just toss up everything we produce, whether it’s really our best work or not. Smothering people with our work doesn’t make them like it any better. In fact, it has the opposite effect.
- Choose the right place and the right time to show your work. Not all creative work is conducive to online presentation, so why force it? Facebook and Twitter never have been especially kind to graphic mediums, so why treat that as your own website? Control where your work is seen and make sure the right people are seeing it.
- Don’t compromise your talent. You alone know whether you’re doing your best, producing your best work, and trying your hardest. Don’t let others set your standards. Be true to yourself, to your talent, and to your creativity.
I know there are some who argue against my approach, who say we have to “evolve” and “change with the times.” What works for someone else may not work for you, though. What works for me works for me and may not help someone else one bit. Some people do need to evolve and do so well. Others, though, need to hold tight to what they are already doing.
What’s important is that you are making those decisions for yourself. Stop chasing trends that are going to change next week. Stop trying to be like someone else. Stop mimicking someone else’s creativity.
Don’t be your own Brutus. To yourself, above all, be true.